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World Media Retreat

Sept. 13, 2012
Freedom Center, 4th Floor Conference Room, Omaha, Nebraska

Good afternoon. I’m honored to share this stage with Gov. Heineman and Mr. Anderson.

It’s good to be in Omaha, a great city for college sports. Every year since 1950, the College World Series has been played right across the street from us. You might know that Virginia Commonwealth University is a great university for college sports. You might remember our basketball team’s historic run last year, or know that we are new members of one of America’s best basketball leagues, the Atlantic 10 Conference. We really love our basketball team, but there is so much more to VCU. We’re making important progress toward becoming the nation’s premier urban, public research university.

As we advance, the coverage we receive from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other newspapers is so important to us. The RTD is the newspaper of record in Virginia. World Media and RTD are an ideal partnership: a great newspaper and great organization.

I’m really glad to be here to talk with a room full of newspaper executives because we have a lot to learn from one another. Universities and newspapers have so much in common. We both play a fundamental role in shaping society. We have the same purpose, although we approach it in different ways — that is, we educate people and help them understand their world, how they fit into it, and how they can embrace their obligation to lead and change it.

But we cannot do it the same way we used to. We are no longer in the knowledge transmission business. We’re no longer just stating or teaching facts. We are now in the critical thinking business. Rather than distributing information to masses, we now have to connect people with what they want to learn, and do so in a context that is meaningful to them. Our audiences want not only to receive information but also to review it, analyze it and use it effectively.

I recently had a lengthy conversation with my 12-year-old son about newspapers and media. It was very enlightening. He said that his generation seeks several things when they are looking for news. One is graphic color to help represent the story to be told. He also said that comic relief would help: “Newspapers tend to be so boring and serious,” which is probably more a statement from a 12-year-old than it is anything else! Finally, though, he said that he would pay to subscribe to an outlet that gathered data into pages of tables that he could access regularly. This was particularly eye-opening to me because he’s 12 and doesn’t have very much money! But he said, “We need data sources to check facts about different things that interest us, like public officials and how they vote, how much money is spent on certain schools, roads, etc.”

He represents a new generation who has the ability to think deeply and are moved to take action. They want to engage in and contribute to their communities. They’re critical thinkers; we cannot do their thinking for them. They’re influenced by technology and the social shift that has come with that technology. They’re more sophisticated in their thinking and can judge what matters versus what doesn’t, and that raises the stakes of authenticity for us. Their expectations are much higher. They want information they can put into context and use in their everyday lives right away, not years from now.

To reach this new type of audience, we both have more competition than ever before, and in all formats. The way to reach them is not by being louder, but more focused, relevant and useful to them. For both newspapers and universities, old models don’t work for a new generation. Technology is important, but it is not enough just to move the same old content to a new format, whether it is news or curricula. We must innovate our services, products, delivery methods and more.

Even though the type of audience is new, our obligation is the same as it has always been: to educate globally engaged citizens who will make a difference and be leaders in our world. A recent study by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation showed that young people who read newspapers are more likely to become active in their community when they enter adulthood.

Which newspaper they read matters too. Two journalism graduate students at the University of Wisconsin found that people who read their local newspapers are much more likely to be engaged in their local communities because they feel a social connection — perhaps proving that local newspapers were the first and best form of social media. On the other hand, those who read only national newspapers are less engaged locally because they think in terms of a nation-state, not their communities. This shows that local newspapers of all sizes are critically important parts of a vibrant, healthy city. Whether it’s Richmond, Omaha or somewhere in between, what you do matters.

The truth is that when you connect with your audience effectively, you have tremendous power. The stories you choose to tell actually help shape the community. What McCombs and Shaw theorized in the 1970s is still true — the mass media set the agenda for public discourse. They wrote, “Here may be the most important effect of mass communication: its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.” You have a great responsibility to guide the national conversation toward those things that matter most.

From my perspective, what matters most? Consider that for many years, the U.S. was the world’s leader in awarding bachelor’s degrees. We are now in 16th place, with just 41 percent of adults 25 and older holding a college degree. This is a problem that affects our economy, our national security, our foreign policy and nearly everything else about our way of life. We need to catch up, to award more college degrees.

We’re certainly addressing that in our industry, including in a variety of ways at VCU. But newspapers can play a significant role too by keeping education an important topic in people’s minds. But the fact is that many newspapers no longer employ a full-time education reporter. Rhode Island has a higher concentration of colleges and universities than any other state and yet the state’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal, has zero dedicated higher education reporters. There are more colleges and universities per capita and virtually no one writes about them.

This is not uncommon. At many newspapers, the only reporters covering college and universities are writing about their sports teams. Fewer than 2 percent of news stories across all media in 2009 focused on higher education. Yet, what most people know about education still comes from media. Most of these news stories were about budgets, crime and the diagnosis of a contagious disease on campus — all important issues, but issues that do little to advance and inform the national education debate. It’s important that we focus more on policy, curriculum, reform, faculty quality and other critical matters.

In today’s innovation economy, a college degree is required. That’s why between 18 and 20 million people are enrolled in college right now. There are more on the way, and parents and families are asking more questions about colleges. Yet, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, they are increasingly not finding the answers they need about school performance in their local newspapers. It’s difficult for them to make their best, most-informed decisions — decisions that will affect their future, and our future, in such a profound way — without the best, most-complete information.

Because newspapers and universities have much in common and can learn from one another, it’s important that we have a good relationship. Enrollment in the nation’s journalism schools is increasing, including at VCU, despite the fact that there are fewer journalism jobs — a 20 percent reduction in the last 10 years. These students will graduate into a changing job market, and together, we need to prepare our students for the realities they will face after graduation.

One way is through innovative new curricula, and we’re seeing this beginning to happen. The University of Alabama and the Anniston Star partner for a master’s degree in community journalism, a novel program that serves big market and great purpose. Arizona State University hired a former Washington Post executive to create a journalism curriculum for the 21st century, supported by the Knight Foundation among others. At VCU, our students cover the state legislature every spring for several smaller newspapers around the state, called the Capitol News Service. It’s a remarkable experience for our students and a great service to the newspapers that lack the resources to staff the legislature daily.

We can continue to be great partners in the classroom and the community. I appreciate the chance to be here today to talk about what we already do — and can still do — together. We have so much in common and so much to learn from one another as we pursue our shared mission of educating and creating globally engaged citizens. As one media mogul said: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” We both fulfill that critical purpose.

Thank you. I look forward to taking your questions.